By Laurie Petersen
“My years at Crow Island were the best learning years of my life. It was there that I discovered the genius of children.”
These words were spoken by one of the most famous children’s book authors of the past half-century: Bill Martin, Jr.
Martin was the author of the classics Brown Bear, Brown Bear What Do You See? and Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, as well as about 300 other children’s books. He served as the principal of Crow Island School from the fall of 1958 to the end of the school year in 1961. This three-year period, during which Martin received a Ph.D. in education from Northwestern University, was a pivotal moment in his career.
Martin had written his first book in 1945 when he was still a journalist with the U.S. Air Force. Little Squeegy Bug, still in print, was illustrated by his brother Bernard and praised by Eleanor Roosevelt. Martin continued to write books and teach English.
A struggling reader until he reached college, Martin had a strong sense of storytelling and rhythm, which he wanted to use to help children learn to read. Born in 1916 and raised in Kansas, he enrolled in graduate school at Northwestern University and received his masters degree in 1957.
When he was hired as principal of Crow Island in 1958 he was known as a children’s book author, teacher, lecturer, and a national education consultant in language arts. He had also co-founded a publishing company for children’s literature and produced “cinescopes” for educational television. He and his family moved into a house at 592 Cherry Street that still stands.
Retired teacher Betty Carbol recalls hearing stories from colleagues who had taught during Martin’s tenure. “They would be leading their class down the hall and suddenly realize the students were no longer there—instead they would be found listening to Principal Martin telling them a story.”
Martin resigned as principal in 1961 to take a newly created position with New York-based publishers Holt, Rinehart and Winston. He wrote and edited books, including series such as “Sounds of Language” that were marketed to elementary schools. In 1967 he wrote the now-classic Brown Bear, Brown Bear What Do You See?, and left Holt, Rinehart to become a full-time writer and lecturer.
Brown Bear was a huge success not only for Martin but also for its illustrator. Martin had seen an advertising illustration by Eric Carle and asked him to create art for the book. Carle agreed, and the book launched his career as a leading children’s book illustrator and, later, author of many books, including The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
Martin continued to write books until he died in 2004, at the age of 88. Today, his most popular books are still helping children learn to read through joyous rhythm and storytelling. ■